Located on Park Street, near the crossing of Lower Circular Road, Calcutta, South Park Street Cemetery is considered as one of the earliest non-church cemeteries in the world and is supposed to be the largest Christian cemetery outside Europe and America. It was officially opened in 1767 on a wide space, which was once a marshy land. During those days, the road leading to the cemetery was known as the Burial Ground Road. Subsequently it was renamed Park Street, after the private deer park built by Sir Elijah Impey, around Vansittart’s garden house. However, in those days, mortality rate among the European settlers was quite high. Apart from death in various battles, snake bites, the damp and humid weather, marshy surroundings and infectious diseases like Malaria, Plague, Black Fever, and Cholera, as prevailed in Calcutta, soon turned out to be a death trap for them. Though the burial ground had been extended on the northern side of Park Street by the year 1785, soon it became evident that even with the added area, the cemetery is not sufficient enough to solve the ever increasing space problem and hence, it was officially closed in 1790. There is a marble plaque at the gate of the cemetery confirming that the cemetery was opened in 1767 and closed in 1790.
The South Park Street Cemetery with its serene landscape of about eight acres is exalted with tall shady trees and is surrounded by high walls. It has an assortment of about 1600 tombs with cenotaphs, tablets and epitaphs. The tombs, mostly made of bricks and sand-stone, are of different sizes and shapes like square, rectangular or circular in structure. The architecture of the tombs reflects a fusion of Gothic and Indo-Saracenic style. Here one can find typical blending of Romanesque cupolas, Grecian urns, Egyptian pyramids and obelisks, Islamic domes along with black basalt carvings on the frontal façade indicating respect for Hindu faith. However, there is at least one interesting thing about the cemetery. Though it is a Christian graveyard, not a single crucifix can be found here, nor is there any quotation from the Holy scriptures on the tombstones.
Surprisingly, as per the prevailing norm, the burials in the cemetery used to take place only after dark. The funeral processions took place with lighted torches and the coffin of the deceased was generally carried on the shoulders of friends and family members. Occasionally, military funerals took place with gunshots fired in honour of the deceased officer.
The South Park Street Cemetery is the final resting place of many famous and infamous military, political and administrative figures of the time. A short list of the notable tombs is given below:
- Sir William Jones (died 27 April 1794), Eminent Indologist and founder of the Asiatic Society, whose towering memorial obelisk is the tallest of the structures in the graveyard.
- Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (died 26 December 1831), a poet, a teacher and an Iconic radical thinker, who was the man behind the Young Bengal Derozio was denied burial in the cemetery proper and was laid to rest on the road just outside, due to his proclaimed atheism.
- Sir Elijah Impey (died 1809 in UK), the first chief justice of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Bengal, infamous for the hanging Maharaja Nandakumar.
- Walter Landor Dickens (died 31 December 1863), son of English novelist Charles Dickens, who served the British India Army until his death.
- Rose Aylmer (died 02 March 1800), niece of Sir Henry Russell’s wife. Sir Henry was the Chief Justice of Bengal, whose house at Calcutta stood in what was later named after him, Russell Street.
- Colonel Robert Kyd (died 27 May 1793), a British Army Officer stationed in India, Founder of The Botanical Garden in 1787. Kyd Street was name after him.
- Major-General Charles Stuart (died 31 March 1828), was an officer in the East India Company Army. He was popularly known as Charles Hindu Stuart, as he embraced Hindu culture and married an Indian lady. His tomb is also shaped in the form of a Hindu temple.
The oldest monument in the cemetery bears an inscription, which reads, ‘In Memory of Mrs. Sarah Pearson (8th of September 1768)’. Some of the epitaphs bear interesting professions of the commoners, like Breeder of cattle, Jail-keeper, Silversmith, School Teacher, Architect, Translator, Livery, Printer, Head tide-waiter, Park superintendent, Cooper, Postmaster and Surgeon.
Today, this old and abandoned necropolis, standing in the midst of a gloomy atmosphere and filled with crumbling colonnades, mossy mausoleums, ignored obelisks and stone cupolas, presents a desolate picture steeped in melancholy and forlorn tranquility. It seems to be a haunted graveyard of thousand horrors. It creates goose bumps to think that it is the final resting place of the thousands, who succumbed to the hardships of an unfamiliar and disease-ridden life in the Indian tropics, which is far away from their own country.
In 1978 a massive restoration of the decaying cemetery was undertaken by the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia. It is now maintained by the Christian Burial Board, Calcutta.